The townsite was founded by Joseph Ladue and named in January 1897 after noted Canadian geologist George M. Dawson, who had explored and mapped the region in 1887. It served as Yukon's capital from the territory's founding in 1898 until 1952, when the seat was moved to Whitehorse.
Dawson has a much longer history, however, as an important harvest area used for millennia by the Hän-speaking people of the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in and their forebears. The heart of their homeland was Tr'ochëk, a fishing camp at the confluence of the Klondike River and Yukon River, now a National Historic Site of Canada. This site was also an important summer gathering spot and a base for moose-hunting on the Klondike Valley.
Dawson City was the center of the Klondike Gold Rush. It began in 1896 and changed the First Nations camp into a thriving city of 40,000 by 1898. By 1899, the gold rush had ended and the town's population plummeted as all but 8,000 people left. When Dawson was incorporated as a city in 1902, the population was under 5,000. St. Paul's Anglican Church built that same year is a National Historic Site.